Health Officer declares provincial public health emergency
A significant increase in drug-related overdoses and deaths has prompted provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall to declare a public health emergency.
This is the first time the provincial health officer has served notice under the Public Health Act to exercise emergency powers. B.C. is the first province to take this kind of action in response to the current public health crisis from drug overdoses.
The action will allow medical health officers throughout the province to collect more robust, real-time information on overdoses in order to identify immediately where risks are arising and take proactive action to warn and protect people who use drugs.
“The recent surge in overdoses is a huge concern for us,” said Health Minister Terry Lake. “We have to do what’s needed to prevent overdoses and deaths, and what’s needed is real-time information. Medical health officers need immediate access to what’s happening and where so they can deploy the necessary strategies to prevent these tragedies.”
The new powers enacted by the provincial health officer provide one more tool in the robust provincial strategy to address this public health crisis. Currently information on overdoses is only reported if someone dies, and there is some delay in the information.
“Health authorities have consistently asked for more data that will help inform responses and prevent future overdoses,” said Dr. Kendall. “This is the first step in making that happen. Over the next few weeks, I’ll work with medical health officers, health authorities, emergency room staff, paramedics and other first responders and the BC Coroners Service to determine how best to collect and share the data.”
Information regarding the circumstances of any overdose in the province where emergency personnel or health care workers respond or provide care will be reported as quickly as possible to the regional health authorities’ medical health officers. This is expected to include location, the drugs used and how they were taken. The information will be reported for both fatal overdoses and overdoses where the person recovers.
This information will help prevent future overdoses and deaths by better targeting outreach, bad drug warnings, awareness campaigns and distribution of naloxone training and kits. It will help health care workers connect with vulnerable communities and provide take-home naloxone to the people who need it. The information will be collected by the provincial health officer and analyzed at a provincial level by the BC Centre for Disease Control to better inform management of this public health crisis, a Ministry of Health press release noted.
Dr. Kendall consulted B.C.’s information and privacy commissioner prior to giving notice of this action under the Public Health Act, and will continue to consult on plans to collect information. The information collected will be protected as confidential medical records.
There were 474 apparent illicit drug overdose deaths in 2015, which is a 30% increase in deaths from 2014 (365 deaths).
There were 76 deaths in January 2016, which is the largest number of deaths in a single month since at least 2007.
At the current rate in 2016, without additional steps to combat overdoses, B.C. could see 600 to 800 overdose deaths this year.
The increase in the proportion of illicit drug overdose deaths for which fentanyl was detected (alone or in combination with other drugs): 2012 = five per cent; 2013 = 15%; 2014 = 25%; 2015 = 31% (approximate – not all investigations are concluded).